‘Black Sailors and Sea Shanties’

From Cecil Sharp House.

‘Black sailors have served on British ships for over 450 years. This little known history is documented by Ray Costello in his book ‘Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships’ (2012) which ‘examines the contribution made by both ordinary and extraordinary black seafarers, from the earliest contact between Europeans and Africans to Britain’s modern navy’ and traces ‘the voices of black seamen’ back as far as 1547.

The ‘Black Presence’ section of the National Archives website also refers to black men defending the coast of Britain as early as 1595 and highlights their role in ‘various expeditions against France, Holland and Spain, including famous battles such as Trafalgar (1805)’. It recognises the contribution of sailors from Africa, the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent ‘to the life on board British ships during times of both peace and war’, emphasising the large numbers of men required to fight and work on board Royal Navy ships and on commercial vessels – both in times of conflict (such as the Napoleonic wars) and eras of large-scale, international maritime trade.

Shanties were the work songs of sailors on board cargo sailing ships and were at the height of usage in the mid-19th century. They were not permitted on Royal Navy vessels. To merchant seamen shanties were an important tool of the trade and were always associated with work (Hugill, 1984). They supported the various tasks required to operate a sailing ship – including weighing anchor and setting sail – all of which required a co-ordinated group effort in either a pulling or pushing action. They also helped sailors ‘put heart’ into this heavy and monotonous labour (Palmer, 2001).

British vessels often had multi-ethnic crews as sailors were recruited from across the colonies. There were many cultural and musical influences on the development of shanties, such as the songs sung by African Americans whilst loading vessels with cotton in ports of the southern United States. Shanty repertoire was shaped by the numerous music forms popular with sailors: these included folk songs; fiddle, dance and march tunes; minstrel music; and land-based work songs.’

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Poem Rotherhithe 2. Mudlarks by Victor Keegan
(With thanks to Alan Murphy)

History can be read in books but for something more
Meander as a mudlark on Rotherhithe’s shore,
A museum of history from days of yore.

Observe, twice daily; the angry sea drives
The Thames back upstream then quickly subsides
Straining the banks that can barely cope
Shaking the foreshore like a kaleidoscope,
Leaving freshly churned history on the beach
Medieval pipes, bricks, tiles, shards each
Could tell a story if only it could speak.
Who last smoked this pipe? What mansion unknown
Was stealthily stripped of this half-hewn stone?

Is the flint and chalk that splatters the strand
Discarded from ships and then dumped unplanned.
Could those animal bones whose shapes you see
Be discarded bits from a tannery
To be made into handles or something more
To make a few pennies for Rotherhithe’s poor
Even those twines could give scavengers hope
They could be sold – yes, money for old rope.
Tread softly on all that oak stripped from ships
Which ended life here after perilous trips
To form platforms where ships were broken down
With the wood sold to locals to grow the town
And soon you will find thrown up by the swell
The silver remains of an oyster shell.

But ponder, too, with your envious gaze
It was food for the poor in olden days
And all around you are rivets and nails
Which can be recycled if all else fails
From broken up ships left unguarded
Pennies for mudlarks from what’s discarded

There’s plenty of Delftware and bricks and stone,
Ballast from departing ships that was thrown
In the river which today is by shingle covered
To boost the outlook for flats discovered
By busy buyers yearning for a river view
A piece of paradise for the lucky few
Who see from their windows, still full of mystery
The mosaic of the shore, proud Rotherhithe’s history.

A collaboration for Illuminate Rotherhithe between mudlark Alan Murphy
@Rothersman and Victor Keegan poet http://www.londonmylondon.co.uk/ @LonStreetwalker

Magical Slime by Victor Keegan

Let’s meet the commuters of London town
But not the humans of dubious renown
Who flood daily across the capital
With faces pale and without committal
Congesting the town with cars and scooters
Carbon spreading, such bad commuters.

Stop now for once and clear your mind
To thank commuters of a different kind
Though to see them there is no hope
Without a hugely enlarging microscope
Showing trillions of critters, small and scaly,
Vertical commuters who twice daily
Rise to the surface in algae-strewn slime
Then photosynthesise in Mission Sublime
Providing oxygen from the Thames brine
Helping to offset the City’s decline
Which could have become even more tragic
But for the Thames and its foreshore magic.

Poem Rotherhithe 1 by Victor Keegan

Rotherhithe, Rotherhithe let us now praise
The tidal history of your glory days
The way you have changed it will never fade
From making ships to breaking them as trade
Was forced to follow fierce global trends
On which prosperity so oft depends.
Yards and wharves which so proudly presided
In those halcyon days have now subsided.
Just see how those wharves have turned with the tide
Now the docks of old have been beautified
And bijou residencies do line the shore
While history slumbers and prices soar.
But the past still glows in this hall of fame
There’s a whiff of history in each street name.

Dwell on these words as you now take a walk
Think what they’d say if they could only talk:
Hardy Close, Baltic Court, Timber Pond
And all the routes of memory fond,
Brunel, Jamaica and Surrey Docks,
Names flow from the tongue with tidal ease.
Neptune, Rope and Temeraire streets
Mere words that recall great maritime feats,
Norway Gate, Shipwright Road, Helsinki Square,
An emporium of nations thus laid bare
Whose migrants built churches still proudly there
Where folk of all faiths can come to pray
In the Finland church as well as Norway
While Russia Dock, Odessa, and Baltic Quay
Came with shanty tales from across the sea
And Iceland Wharf where the stench of blubber
Would fill the nose of any landlubber.

Go now from Isambard Place to Brunel Road
To the sub Thames tunnel that Brunel bestowed
On a grateful nation when first unfurled
The first of its kind in all the wide world
And trains from Rotherhithe are still stopping
Through that same tunnel at gentrified Wapping.

Rotherhithe creates a dream-like friction
So quick it can morph from fact to fiction.
Where else as imagination unravels
Could Gulliver have started his famous travels
Or Thames-ditched corpses meet a morbid end
As Dickens described in Our Mutual Friend.
This town adjusts with fiery passion
To the shifting whims of global fashion
But always knows if one is being frank
There is one above all it needs to thank.
It is Father Thames, that benign giver
Who turned the town with its passing river
Into a source of wealth soon to provide
Much needed jobs, houses and civic pride.

This bend in the river spawned England’s power
When Christopher Jones steered the Mayflower
Across the wild and turbulent Atlantic
To help found an empire from seeds Britannic.
But, did it also witness the Empire’s end
When two centuries later around Redriff’s bend
The Temeraire was pulled by tugs to be broken
The sunset of power though words were unspoken
It had brought riches and squalor in equal weight
Two sides of Empire that made Britain great
Yet during those years there were glory days
Stories of Rotherhithe never cease to amaze
Which is why we are singing this song in your praise.

Anathemata by David Jones
Did he make the estuary?
was the Cant smiling
and the Knock smooth?
Did our Tidal Father bear him
by Lower Hope to Half Reach?
Did he berth in the Greenland or was she moored
in the Pool?
Did he tie up across the water
or did she toss at the Surrey shore?
Had he business at Dockhead?
Did he sign Tom Bowline on:
in place of the drownded Syro-Phoenician?
Did he bespeak
of Eb Bradshaw, Princes Stair:
listed replacement of sheaves to the running-blocks, new dead-eyes to the standing shrouds, some spare hearts for the stays, a heavy repair in the chains, some nice work up at the hound
. . . would he expedite.
It ’ld be well worth his while—for a tidy consideration could she have preference—for she must weigh on time or the dues ’ld ruin ’em—would he, for once, oil an elbow— would he please to hustle the job—and not so over nice with the finish.

Not for a gratis load of the sound teak in
Breaker’s Yard
and that we could well do with.
Not for a dozen cords of Norweyan, red nor yaIler, paid for, carried and stacked.
Not for a choice of the best float of Oregon in the mast-pond.

The River’s Tale

A poem about the river, published in 1911 by Rudyard Kipling who also wrote the Jungle Book in 1894

Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew–
(Twenty bridges or twenty-two)–
Wanted to know what the River knew,
For they were young and the Thames was old,
And this is the tale that the River told:–

“I WALK my beat before London Town,
Five hour up and seven down.
Up I go till I end my run
At Tide-end-town, which is Teddington.
Down I come with the mud in my hands
And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.
But I’d have you know that these waters of mine
Were once a branch of the River Rhine,
When hundreds of miles to the East I went
And England was joined to the Continent.
“I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,
The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,
And the giant tigers that stalked them down
Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.

And I remember like yesterday
The earliest Cockney who came my way,
When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,
With paint on his face and a club in his hand.
He was death to feather and fin and fur.
He trapped my beavers at Westminster.
He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,
He killed my heron off Lambeth Pier.
He fought his neighbour with axes and swords,
Flint or bronze, at my upper fords,
While down at Greenwich, for slaves and tin,
The tall Phoenician ships stole in.
And North Sea war-boats, painted and gay,
Flashed like dragon-flies, Erith way;
And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek
Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek,
And life was gay, and the world was new,
And I was a mile across at Kew!
But the Roman came with a heavy hand,
And bridged and roaded and ruled the land,
And the Roman left and the Danes blew in–
And that’s where your history-books begin!”